Civil curfew as civil disobedience: Kashmiris undermine the Indian state

A street in Srinagar on 21 August 2019. By staying inside their homes despite the gradual lifting of restrictions, Kashmiris are disrupting the Indian state’s ability to claim a return to “normalcy.” Adnan Abidi / REUTERS
28 August, 2019

The popular response in Kashmir to the recent change in its constitutional status has taken two forms. One of these dates back a decade—large groups of people taking to the streets, shouting slogans of azadi, and pelting stones at security forces. The second type of response has had people refrain from stepping outside their homes even as prohibitory orders issued in early August—to close down educational institutions and offices, blackout telecommunication and impose Section 144, preventing the assembly of five or more people in public—are gradually relaxed. On 5 August, a few days after these restrictions were imposed, the government read down Article 370 of the Constitution to remove Kashmir’s special status, abrogated Article 35A—which allowed only Kashmiris the right to own land in the state—and bifurcated the state into two union territories, Ladakh and Jammu and Kashmir.

The Kashmiris’ decision to stay inside their homes has given a desolate, lamentable appearance to Kashmir, whether in print or TV visuals. Media reports have quoted Kashmiris describing their decision as a “civil curfew,” the very nomenclature conveying retaliation against the official lockdown of the valley. It is hard to tell whether the motivation behind the self-imposed civil curfew is fear, resentment, or both; or even whether it has been planned and can be sustained beyond a week or two.

But the response is significant, not least because of the consequences it could have for the Indian state’s claims. Since its announcement on 5 August, the Indian government has repeatedly claimed that the situation in Kashmir is “normal.” The civil curfew poses a firm challenge to the narrative of normalcy, or a return to the life to which people were habituated before it was disrupted by an extraordinary event.

In Kashmir, “normalcy” implied an all-too-familiar thrum of life—residents flocked to markets, attended schools, colleges and offices—interspersed with high military presence, firefights between militants and the security forces, boys pelting stones at men in uniform, or funeral processions of militants reverberating with the slogans of azadi.

Kashmir’s so-called “normalcy,” however, was not disrupted by its people or militants or a neighbouring country. It was the union government, apprehensive that its 5 August measures could goad the people into engaging in violent protests. This could have stoked anxiety about the efficacy of the government’s decisions, apart from complicating its conduct of international diplomacy. In fact, the prime minister Narendra Modi and the home minister Amit Shah justified the measures of 5 August on the grounds of integrating Kashmir into India, freeing it from a militant secessionist movement and bestowing on its people the ease of living supposedly prevailing in other states.

The logic of their rhetoric implies Kashmiris accepting, in some measure, the notion that their life could become as in other states, or at least made better and more secure than it had been until 5 August. This compulsion, in turn, demanded that the state should relax prohibitory orders to nudge people into restoring to the Valley the hustle-bustle of life as it had known until that day.

From this perspective, the state is both the disruptor and the restorer of normalcy in the Valley. The Kashmiris’ decision to voluntarily stay locked inside their homes is their attempt to usurp this power. In Kashmir and elsewhere, the state’s favoured method of returning to business as usual is to stringently regulate the public arena. But this has been aborted in Kashmir, as its people have refused to step outside or open their shops.

Their response is a more effective variation of what the Poles did after martial law was imposed on their country, on 13 December 1981. Government propaganda rationalising the martial law prompted a Pole in a small town named Swidnik to place his television set on the windowsill and go out for a walk at 7.30 pm, when the news telecast would begin.

Others in Swidnik soon began to emulate the dissenter, and this novel form of protest spread to the larger city of Lublin, just ten kilometres away. Thousands began to join the evening strolls. About this “walking protest,” the New York Times reported, “People just walked their dogs, met each other, exchanged gossip. Some people put their TV sets in the window with the screen facing out so that everyone would know they weren’t watching it.” The researcher Hania M Fedorowicz noted in her paper, The War for Information: The Polish Response to Martial Law, that the authorities took punitive measures to discourage the protestors, such as turning off electricity and water supply. As the participation in the evening “strolls” continued to rise, the protestors’ movement was curbed by curfews. They were proscribed from stepping out during the news telecast because the state decided to exercise its right to regulate public life.

In Kashmir, however, its people seem to have shunned the public arena, reducing the state’s supervisory right over it to irrelevance. Can the state make it mandatory for Kashmiris to step outside their homes daily, at least for a few hours? Such a measure would be unprecedented. The state could also decide not to condone the thin attendance of government officials. Will they all be dismissed from service? What would happen to students, if they refuse to attend classes?

Though the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party is an affiliate of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which largely kept away from the movement for Independence, its leaders likely know that the suppression of a non-violent protest against the state would be tantamount to betraying its history. In India’s struggle for freedom, Mohandas Gandhi employed a technique of passive resistance that was designed to compel the state, which has the monopoly of coercive powers in society, to pay heed to the sentiments of people.

He lucidly explained the logic of such a resistance two days before he embarked on the Salt Satyagraha, on 12 March 1930, to protest against the British monopoly to produce salt. To those who had gathered at the Sabaramati Ashram for the march to Dandi, where he intended to violate the salt law, Gandhi said, “I do not think any one of you would be here if you had to face rifle-shots or bombs. But you have no fear of rifle-shots or bombs? Why? Supposing I had announced that I was going to launch a violent campaign (not necessarily with men armed with rifles, but with sticks and stones), do you think the government would have left me free until now? Can you show me an example in history (be it England, America or Russia) where the state has tolerated violent defiance of authority for a single day?”

Gandhi went on to explain why the mighty colonial state could be neutered by civil disobedience—the deliberate violation of immoral laws and willingness to accept punishment. “Supposing ten persons from each of the 700,000 villages in India come forward to manufacture and to disobey the Salt Act, what do you think this government can do? Even the worst autocrat you can imagine would not dare to blow regiments of peaceful civil resisters out of a cannon’s mouth,” Gandhi explained.

Kashmir’s civil curfew echoes the Gandhian idea of passive resistance, though it does not involve a deliberate violation of any laws. It merely upholds the right of people to stay inside homes, and appropriate from the state the power to determine normalcy. The civil curfew is not only a barometer of the popular discontent, but a portent of a storm that could be more potent than the militancy that has marked the state for the past three decades.